The first post in our DIY Walnut Coffee Table Build Series focused on the aesthetic and functional design aspects of the coffee table. In part two, we took a deeper look at the woodworking aspects of the design, focusing on the joinery techniques, and furniture hardware decisions. In part three, we finally get to start working with wood. We start by picking out lumber from the lumber yard, milling the lumber to our desired dimensions, and gluing up the panels for the coffee table.
After coming up with our walnut coffee table design, we calculate how much walnut we need to purchase from the lumber yard. Most hardware stores don’t carry walnut and the ones that do sell it at a premium price. In the Los Angeles area, our preferred lumber yard is Bohnhoff Lumber in Vernon. Bohnhoff carries a wide variety of lumber in most thicknesses and also offers milling services for those without equipment to mill on their own.
Based on our desired thicknesses (3/4 and 1/2 inch), 4/4 (1 inch) rough sawn walnut is sufficient for our design needs without excess waste.
Rough sawn lumber comes straight off the saw mill and is very rough and unrefined. Saw marks are still evident and there may have been some wood movement (warp, cup, twist, etc.) caused by the wood drying process. Depending on how it was stored, there may also be dirt, water stains, and sun-darkening on the surface. The grain is slightly evident but the true wood color can be difficult to determine. Rough sawn lumber usually comes in 8-10 foot lengths and varying thicknesses in increments of 1/4 inch starting at 1 inch.
After purchasing our rough sawn walnut from Bohnhoff, we can start the milling process of getting flat faces and square edges. We prefer to split the milling in to two stages, rough milling and final milling. The goal of rough milling is to get the board within 80% of the final thickness. After rough milling we let the wood rest in the garage for a week to allow moisture levels to equalize and to release any tension in the wood. During final milling we double check that all faces are smooth and edges are square. We also bring the boards to their final thickness.
We start the milling process by rough cutting the boards to length to make them easier to manage. Keep pieces about 1/2 inch longer than the final length desired. For safety, combine short pieces together to maintain a minimum length of 10-12 inches. Remember that the saw blade removes 1/8 inch per cut so maintain some extra length when combining multiple short pieces together. After rough cutting to length, joint one edge and the adjoining face to get two flat faces that are 90 degrees to each other. Then use the planer to get the third face parallel to the first and to get the board within 80% of the final desired thickness. Once the two parallel faces are smooth, flip the board between planer passes to remove material from both sides of the board until the rough thickness is achieved.
After the wood has gone through the planer and the rough surface has been smoothed, the true color and grain of the wood becomes very easy to see. During the resting period between rough milling and final milling, we lay all of the boards side by side to determine which boards would be used for the coffee table top and bottom. We group boards based on color, grain pattern and figure, and try to find an arrangement where all of the attributes compliment each other. We find that the best way to determine board layout is to put the boards on the floor, then walk around and view the boards from all angles. Different lighting angles will reveal different colors and grain patterns that may have been hidden previously.
After determining the best board layout and orientation, we start the process of gluing the individual boards together to form the panels for the coffee table top and bottom. To help with alignment during the gluing process, we use Festool dominos to keep all the boards properly aligned. An alternative to dominos would be biscuits.
After the domino slots are cut, we can start the gluing process. Always do a dry fit of the assembly before applying glue in order to find the best method of clamping. After dry-fitting, take everything apart again and apply glue. We use Titebond I wood glue for interior projects. Make sure to apply enough glue to achieve full coverage across the entire joint. To ensure the panels are glued flat, use flat clamping cauls across the boards. Get all of the clamps setup and loosely tightened before applying full clamping pressure. Make sure the clamps aren’t over-tightened or joint strength will be weakened because all of the glue will be squeezed out of the joint. Leave the panels in the clamps for 1-hour before removing the clamps. Gently remove the excess glue using a scraper, then allow the panel to dry overnight. Excess glue is much easier to remove before it is fully dry, so try not to leave excess glue on the boards overnight.
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